Who Undermines, Who Is Undermined, And Why: Gender, Power, and Undermining

Open Access
Dahl, Julia L
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
July 10, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Theresa K Vescio, Thesis Advisor
  • gender
  • power
  • undermining
  • stereotypes
Two lab studies explored low power peoples’ perceptions of powerful people’s power worthiness and the various ways low power people can undermine the influence of powerful people. In Study 1, we experimentally manipulated leader gender and controlled for leader behavior—including the leader’s demonstration of power over low power people. We also measured low power men’s and women’s perceptions that the leader was worthy of power and engagement in various forms of undermining behavior (e.g., disagreement with leader’s decisions, ignoring the leader’s input). We expected low power men to be more likely to undermine female leaders than male leaders. However, we found the converse: Low power women were less likely undermine male leaders than female leaders, whereas low power men were equally likely to undermine female and male leaders. Study 2 was the same as Study 1, but, to test possible indirect effects of leader and/or participant gender on undermining behaviors, we additionally measured: participants’ feelings of discomfort when thinking about their performance being seen by others, anger, expectancy violations at the leaders’ demonstration of power, and fear of punishment from the leader for undermining. Consistent with the mechanisms expected to produce gender differences in undermining behavior, female leaders were seen as less worthy of their power and were less respected than were male leaders; perceived power worthiness and respect, in turn, predicted greater undermining behavior. Four unexpected, but interesting effects also emerged. First, male leaders were feared less than female leaders and lack of fear, in turn, predicted the greater undermining of male leaders than female leaders (via ignoring the input of male leaders more than female leaders). Second, low power women felt more discomfort at the thought of others seeing their performance than did low power men, and that discomfort, in turn predicted perceptions that leaders were less power worthy and, subsequently women’s greater undermining of leaders (via more disagreement with leaders decisions). Third, low power women experienced more expectancy violation at a female leader’s demonstration of power compared with a male leader’s demonstration of power. Fourth, low power men were more likely than low power women to undermine leaders (via ignoring the leader’s input). Possible theoretical explanations and implications are discussed.